When most kids take up sports, they usually get a choice as to what they'd like to play. But for Columbia sophomore Sherif Farrag, the decision to pick up a fencing sword was not his to make.
"I really had no choice," Farrag said. "My father was on the Egyptian national team, my uncle went to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles for Egypt, and my other uncle is now the assistant [men's fencing] coach at Harvard, so it's just been in my entire family for whatever reason."
At the young age of 10, Farrag's father began training his son to fence. And despite some initial reluctance on Farrag's part, in a short amount of time, he was hooked.
"At the beginning, I did resent it a little bit just because it was a sport I was sort of forced on by my father, but after a year or so I started competing and becoming a better fencer, and I've loved the sport ever since," Farrag said.
For Farrag, all that training came together for him on Sunday, when the sophomore foilist posted a surprising 13-2 record at the NYU Duals against some of the best competitors in the nation. The hope now is that "The Sheriff," as he is known among his teammates, could help provide depth to what is already a talented foil team.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Farrag first came to the United States when he was nine years old, after a childhood spent traveling around the Middle East. When his family moved to New Jersey, Farrag found that his most difficult transition was overcoming the English language barrier.
"Coming to the United States definitely was hard, because the English I took in Dubai still wasn't at the same level," he said, "so I still really didn't understand the teachers as well."
In high school, Farrag won a slew of awards on the fencing strip. Beyond being named All-State twice, Farrag also placed highly in national competitions, finishing third in cadet men's foil at Summer Nationals in 2003, tenth in the men's foil at the Junior Olympics in 2005, and seventh at the Carl Schwonde World Cup in 2005. All his accomplishments caught the eye of not only Columbia head fencing coach George Kolombatovich, but also of Ivy rival Penn. Although Farrag approached Kolombatovich about fencing for Columbia, he claims that the Quakers were far more aggressive in recruiting him.
"To be honest with you, Penn recruited me a lot more than Columbia," Farrag said. "The coach there really wanted me to go to the school. He had me come to Penn and had a really long conversation with me."
Farrag applied to and was accepted by both schools. But after mulling over his choices, he picked New York City over Philadelphia, citing the team's success, his potential teammates, and the proximity of the New York City Fencers Club, as his reasons for choosing Columbia.
"I felt that the Columbia team was better and had the potential to do really well in NCAA [competition]," Farrag said. "The foil fencers here, like Scott Sugimoto and Calvin Chen, they really attract the new kids. They're great fencers to compete in practice with."
His freshman year, Farrag finished with a 14-13 record, including a 4-1 mark in Ivy League play. But while his success last weekend may have been unexpected, Farrag says that it was not the result of any change in his pre-match preparation, which he has kept constant.
"It's really good to have a consistent pre-competition routine," Farrag said. "You stretch a certain way, you give yourself enough time so that you're comfortable when you fence. You're trying to get yourself into the right state of mind where before the first bout starts, you're ready, mentally focused, and have a plan of what you want to do."
And despite the fact that Farrag's family legacy is in fencing, the sophomore says that he feels no pressure to live up to the accomplishments that his family has achieved.
"I didn't really feel pressured from that," Farrag said. "Even though my whole family's in the sport, no one really told me, 'You have to do this, you have to do well because we did well.' I didn't really feel that kind of pressure."